COLLEVILLE, Normandy, June 6, 2009 -- Marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, President Obama said the outcome of World War II and the course of the 20th century came down to the success of the Allied forces on the beaches at Normandy.
"It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide," Obama said at a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
On June 6, 1944, nine allied nations assembled over 150,000 troops for the invasion on the beach. German troops were waiting on the top of the cliffs and pinned them down. Nearly 4,500 allied troops died on the first day alone.
Obama said that single day changed the course of the war.
"Despite all the years of planning and preparation, despite the inspiration of our leaders, the skill of our generals, the strength of our firepower and the unyielding support from our home front, the outcome of the entire struggle would ultimately rest on the success of one day in June," Obama said.
Honoring those who landed on the nearby beaches 65 years ago today, Obama heralded their "simple sense of duty" to their nation.
"A duty sustained by the same ideals for which their countrymen had fought and bled for over two centuries. That is the story of Normandy -- but also the story of America," he said.
Obama said this day is held in such reverence and regard because of the "sheer improbability" of the Allied victory and the "size of the odds that weighed against success.
The president spoke about the sense of unity that World War II forged, with soldiers of different beliefs, religions and culture fighting alongside one another against a common enemy.
"In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that," he said. "Whatever God we prayed to, whatever our differences, we knew that the evil we faced had to be stopped."
In the audience were 250 veterans of the invasion at Normandy, some in wheelchairs who made the trip back despite lagging health. Every day, 1000 veterans of World War II pass away.
Obama recognized their determination in making the long journey. "I know this trip doesn't get any easier as the years pass, but for those of you who make it, there's nothing that could keep you away," he said.
Obama highlighted one veteran, Jim Norene, who was a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne.
Norene came to pay respects at the American Cemetery last night and passed away in his sleep shortly after.
"Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that he might not return. But just as he did 65 years ago, he came anyway," Obama said. "May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here."
The day was personally significant for the president too. He was joined by one special veteran, his great-uncle, Charlie Payne, 84, who in 1945, as a young soldier in the U.S. Army's 89th division, helped liberate a satellite camp of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, which Obama visited yesterday.
"I am so proud that he is here with us today," Obama said. (Payne is Obama's late-grandmother's brother.)
After touring Buchenwald, Obama described the effect that experience had on his uncle.
"He returned from his service in a state of shock, saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, along with the painful memories that would not leave his head.
Today Obama singled out his uncle and his grandfather for their service and the stories they shared.
"It is the memories that have been passed on to so many of us about the service or sacrifice of a friend or relative. For me, it is my grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who arrived on this beach six weeks after D-Day and marched across Europe in Patton's Army. And it is my great-uncle who was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp. His name is Charles Payne, and I am so proud that he is here with us today."
Before the president spoke, there was a wreath laying and a moment of silence followed by a 21 gun salute and TAPS.
Before the formal ceremony, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined the leaders of Great Britain, Canada and France and their spouses at the Visitors Center and stood at the Overlook at Colleville. They were greeted at the overlook by two veterans, Benjamin Franklin and Clyde Combs.
For their contributions in World War II, Franklin has been nominated to receive the rank of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, and Combs has been nominated to receive the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor
Obamas Meet the Sarkozys
After they arrived in Caen France on the president's helicopter, Marine One, the Obamas were greeted by French President Nikolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.
Several hundred onlookers waved tiny French and American flags outside of the French Prefecture as the two couples exchanged pleasantries and between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Sarkozy, double-cheek kisses.
Obama and Sarkozy held a one-on-one meeting and just as in Germany, Obama was asked why he was not spending more time with his host.
Once again he chalked it up to a "very tough schedule" and said the media was "reading too much" into the perceived snub of Sarkozy.
"I would love nothing more than to have a leisurely week in Paris, stroll down the Seine, take my wife out to a nice meal, have a picnic in Luxembourg gardens. Those days are over, for the moment," he said.
Obama stressed that he considers Sarkozy a friend and can always pick up the phone and talk to him, but right now he has big challenges to confront back home.
"It's not necessary for me to spend huge amounts of time other than just getting business done when I'm here. At some point I will be the ex-president and then you will find me in France, I'm sure quite a bit having fun," Obama said.
France is the final leg of the president's five-day, four-country trip, and it will be something of a family affair. Michelle Obama and daughters, Malia and Sasha, traveled to Paris yesterday to meet up with the president and take in some of the sights.
With their mom, the Obama girls visited the Eiffel Tower, and crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the American First Family.